Victorian-era ‘Bull in a China Shop’ speaks to contemporary feminism

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Kelli Simpkins (left) and Emjoy Gavino star in About Face Theatre’s Midwest premiere of “Bull in a China Shop,” directed by Keira Fromm. | Anna Gelman

At the turn of the 20th century, women’s higher education was struggling against popular notions that women didn’t possess the ability to learn and that education negatively affected their health. Mary Woolley was having none of that.

‘Bull in a China Shop’ When: To June 30 Where: About Face Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Tickets: $20-$38 Info: aboutfacetheatre.com

As the president of Mt. Holyoke College from 1901 to 1937, Woolley made it her mission to transform the college experience for women into a serious, academic undertaking. But as playwright (and Mt. Holyoke grad) Bryna Turner discovered, Woolley’s personal life was even more interesting.

Turner knew Woolley was president of the college (there’s a building named after her on campus) but that was about it until after graduation when she became more interested in women’s history and queer history specifically. It was when Turner began following Mt. Holyoke’s Instagram account — which highlighted items from its special collections — that she uncovered the full story of Woolley and her partner, Jeannette Marks.

“One day they started posting material about Woolley and Marks — photos and excerpts from their letters,” Turner recalls. “It was remarkable this little story about these amazing women.”

Before the move to Mt. Holyoke, Woolley was a professor at Wellesley College where she engaged in a relationship with Jeannette Marks, one of her students who was 12 years her junior. When Mt. Holyoke offered her the position as president, she asked Marks to go with her. Marks, who wanted to be a writer, was reticent; a future stuck in a small town was not all that appealing to her. Yet, the fiery and passionate Marks did go, and spent her career teaching English at Mr. Holyoke.

Woolley and Marks’ relationship is at the core of Turner’s play “Bull in a China Shop,” which is making its Chicago debut in a staging by About Face Theatre under the direction of Keira Fromm. The cast features Kelli Simpkins as Mary Woolley and Emjoy Gavino as Jeannette Marks, with Mary Beth Fisher as the tight-lipped Dean Walsh, Adithi Chandrashekar as Felicity, a fellow professor, and Aurora Adachi-Winter as Pearl, a student devoted to Marks.

“Bryna’s play is completely singular in the way that it blends the historical Victorian drama with a nonlinear feminist battle cry [and] comic love story,” Fromm says. “There’s just nothing like it out there.”

It was reading the letters Woolley and Marks wrote to each other that helped Turner develop a feel for their personalities. She says Woolley came across as “effervescent with optimism. She has this way of making you believe everything is going to work out even when she’s talking about changing everything about an entire institution.”

Marx, on the other hand, is “turbulent and moody.” Her letters are dashed off and hard to read. “I could immediately see this moody writer who was going to be a source of conflict and inspiration for Woolley.”

Yet Turner’s admits her first attempt at corralling Woolley and Marks’ story into a workable play wasn’t successful.

“I immediately tried to write the play but I was really caught up with the time, 1901, and trying to write this flowery Victorian prose,” Turner, 28, recalls. “The result was very boring and false because it wasn’t a voice that was really mine.”

Two years later Turner had gone through a “major heartbreak” and claimed she would never write another comedy about love. “That’s pretty much all I’d written to that point,” she says, laughing. Then a friend reminded her about “that play about those women.”

“I sat down and wrote the whole first draft of the play,” Turner says. “Suddenly it had an urgency. I wasn’t worried about the language anymore.”

Turner fixed the language problem simply by making it more anachronistic and modern (there’s also a lot of swearing). Fromm feels that helps make the play feel “really of the now.” These women feel so modern and at odds with their own time, which brings it all into the present.

As well as revolutionizing women’s education, Woolley and Marks also were suffragettes fighting for womens’ right to vote, and Fromm feels that these battles of the past are reflected in what is going on today, as women’s rights remain under attack.

“You may be looking at two women dressed in turn-of-century Victorian skirts and suits but you’re forced to contend with how the fights that they were waging feel so in touch with what is going on today,” Fromm says. “This play feels resonant and topical to the times we are living in. And that just makes it an incredibly exciting work to bring to the stage.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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